My thoughts on Oppenheimer and American Prometheus
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My thoughts on Oppenheimer and American Prometheus


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The movie Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan had a profound effect on me and in the last half year I though a lot about it and I even read the "American Prometheus" the Book the movie is based on. While reading the book and rewatching the movie several times I wrote down many things that stood out to me, that I found interesting and other things.

Now I would like to write down my thoughts here, but be aware these are just my notes and It’s highly recommended to have seen the movie, to understand what is happening here. Also this will probably be somewhat incoherent.

Oppenheimer is about the American physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer which lead the nuclear weapons project that brought about the bombs that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The movie also covers Oppenheimers past as a fellow Traveler in the San Francisco chapter of the Communist party which later lead the AEC to revoke his Security Clearance in a show trial orchestrated by Lewis Strauss.

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The book is called "American Prometheus" as an allusion to the Greek figure Prometheus which gave fire to man and was then punished by the gods. In Oppenheimers case he was punished by the 1954 trial but he wasn’t actually punished for giving the nuclear fire but for fighting against the thermonuclear fire which was pursued during the late 1940s. Prometheus also being someone who can see the future just like Oppenheimer and his Collegues which foresaw the Cold War and Arms Race with the USSR.

In the intro to American Prometheus a quote is given by Oppenheimer where he says to Einstein "Damn it, I happen to love this country" which was changed a little bit in the movie but the spirit is still there.

Coming of age

Let’s go over Robert Oppenheimers youth and his time in several universities.

Oppenheimer was born in the year 1904 in New York and was raised there in a cultural Jewish household. He then went to the "New York Society for Ethical Culture". This was a highly progressive school where each student was each encouraged to follow the subject they were the best in. This environment probably created Oppenheimers sense for social justice which would reveal itself in the 1930s.

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In comparison to the ethical culture society Harvard was really conservative or maybe it was fitting for the time as they only allowed a limited amount of Jewish and black students and they also forced racial segregation. This period is called "the Nadir of American race relations" which lasted well into the 1940s.

In his late Teen Hood Robert also started to sail which he paused until he and his wife Kitty would discover it as their shared passion long after the the trial during the 1950s and 60s.

In his youth Robert was interested in geology and on a visit to his German grandfather he collected stones in the mines of Joachimsthal, where ironically later the uranium for the German weapons project would be mined. Roberts life consisted of many ironies.

On a voyage with one of his ethical culture teachers to New Mexico Robert fell in love with the American mid-west and riding. He was also astonished by a school in the Los Alamos Mesa where boys learned to care for a horse. Oppenheimer would later return and occupy this school for the Manhattan Project.

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The movie starts in the 1925 when Oppenheimer is at Cambridge and he studies applied physics. He was really depressed at the time and he visited several psychiatrists. His parents even matched him with a women in order to make him happier. Oppenheimer poisoning his professor is also true but in real life Oppenheimers father Julius Oppenheimer had to come over to ensure that his son would not be expelled.

During this this time Oppenheimer was also interested in other things besides physics like Art and Poetry. Just like shown in the Movie he read the book "The Wasteland".

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As depicted in the movie Robert took off the Göttingen (Germany) but before that he went to Leiden (Netherlands) where he met Isidor Rabi. This is also where he got his nickname "Opje". After World War 1 Germany was hit with enormous inflation which had its peak in 1923. The resulting discontent, which later lead to the rise of the Nazis, was amplified by Oppenheimer being a rich foreigner that had no problems with money.

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Oppenheimer then continued onto ETH Zürich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) where he would meet Wolfgang Pauli.

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Changing interest’s

To furnish his Sangre De Christo Ranch named "Perro Caliente", which is Spanish for hot dog, he used the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalogue. Today this company is know only as "Sears". One could even order whole houses from these Catalogues which is seen in the Video Game Red Dead Redemption 2 where the company is renamed to "Wheeler, Rawson and Co.".

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(Portable vibrator for 5.95?)

Just like in the Movie Oppenheimer once talked about how he would like to combines his great two passions Physics and the New Mexico Desert.

His applied physics friend Ernest Lawrence was an anti New Dealer and he got the Nobel Price in 1939. After the Great Depression the american People voted Franklin Delano Roosevelt in as President, which promised to turn around the economy. He did this by creating millions of jobs out of nothing, many of the national parks and other infrastructure projects like the Golden Gate Bridge were built during this time.

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Oppenheimers love of Indian mythology began in 1933, he got his famous quote "I am become death, destroyer of world" and the name for the Trinity test from here. His brothers marriage is also correctly portrayed as Robert wasn’t to happy with his waitress wife Jackie.

Jean really did not want any flowers.

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Also the circumstances around Robert and Kittys affair are correct, She also was of German descendance which is a further ironic component of Oppenheimers life. They would later Marry in the Virginia City and they would call their first car ironically "bombsight".

Pristine mesa

Leo Szilard wrote a letter signed by Albert Einstein to then President Franklin Roosevelt to warn him about the possibilities of a nuclear weapon, this was one month before the Second World War began in September 1939.

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Before the American Weapons Project began Oppenheimer was tasked to assert alongside other notable scientist whether such a bomb would be feasible. This was when the talked about naval explosion in Halifax. This is also the moment Edward Teller points out the possibility of Atmospheric Ignition and a Thermonuclear Bomb (H-Bomb). After this scary revelation Oppenheimer doubled checked the match not with Einstein but another scientist.

At first the Manhattan Project was coded S-1 and they fought it would cost around 100 Million Dollars but it ended up costing about 2 Billion. Leslie Groves was the designated the Military Leader of the Operation because he built the Pentagon.

Klaus Fuchs’ allegiance’s with the Soviet Union are foreshadowed in the Movie by two occasions where someone says "Fuchs head down" when they are testing the Explosive Lenses of the Implosion Bomb.

During the Chevalier Affair Oppenheimer really made his famous martinis.

The real Los Alamos was way bigger than portrayed in the Movie. It housed about 3000 Scientist and 2000 Soldiers.

The gave the Bomb the nickname / code name "The Gadget" because they didn’t want to talk about a nuclear bomb while handy man were doing work in the floor above them.

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Isidor Rabi was a good friend of Oppenheimer which listened often to his advise, Rabi was against the atom bomb.

During this time Oppenheimer suffered from tuberculosis. Doctors recommend people with tuberculosis to go to dry places.

The military leader assigned to Los Alamos Whitney Ashbridge ironically went to the Boys School there.

Boris Pash, the man tasked with surveilling Oppenheimer was later assigned to poisoning Fidel Castro with Cigars.

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A science fiction author called John Wood Campbell noticed that something must be going on in Santa Fe New Mexico when a lot of his subscribers moved their address to the same PO. Box there.

Victor Weisskopf later became the director of the CERN.

Oppenheimer really met up with Teller one hour a week to discuss the H-Bomb.

During the trinity test Oppenheimer wasn’t standing in a bunker and looking at the explosion, he was also laying on the ground and lookin at it through welders glasses. This change is understandable. Only one of the weapon types was tested the implosion type with plutonium, as they did not have enough uranium and they were sure that the gun type design would work.

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Japan was willing to surrender even before the use of the bombs under the condition that their emperor wouldn’t be executed. The US didn’t accept this before the bombs but after.

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Nagasaki wasn’t the original target, they had to reroute because of bad weather. The original Cities name "Kokura" is in japan today a phrase meaning luck.

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Henry Stimson was Minister of War during both World Wars.

What have we done

After the war society respected the work of scientist more and somewhat of a Meritocracy started. Scientific Progress in the field also didn’t stop as Los Alamos is still a research center.

Hookan Chevalier became a translator for the Nuremberg Trials.

Oppenheimer really had an ongoing affair with Ruth Tolman.

In 1947 Oppenheimer became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) Princeton which is often mistaken for the University Princeton. The IAS became a haven for intellectuals from all over.

Oppenheimer really embarrassed Strauss after the didn’t want to export Isotopes to Norway.

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At first it was thought that 50 atom bombs would be sufficient to destroy the USSR but in order to ramp up production this number was many times increased, resulting in an arsenal of 18’000 Nuclear bombs in 1960.

Lewis Strauss really handed William Borden Oppenheimers files.

It’s strows

Strauss really pointed out the pronunciation of his last name.

President Eisenhower was actually on Oppenheimers side but he was to afraid of Senator McCarthy.

Lloyd Garrison, Oppenheimers Lawyer during the trials, invited 24 Witnesses.

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Lawrence actually didn’t come to testify because he was sick. Boris Pash didn’t come in his stead.

The final verdict wasn’t given in person.

Strauss really lost his position as minister for trade because of the Oppenheimer witch hunt and JFK voting against him. In the book this is only explained in one paragraph.

Oppenheimer was given the Fermi award by Lyndon B. Johnson instead of Kennedy, because he was shot in 1963.

Sadly Oppenheimer did not live to see the end of the Apollo Program but I assert that it is are similar in Scientific importance as Manhattan Project, as thousands of people participated in both projects to build something completely new and both times it was part of a war, of course the Apollo Program being much more peaceful in nature.

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I think you get it … this movie is amazing.

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